As they trickled into One City Plaza in the heart of downtown Greenville for their first class, some of the entrepreneurs in the new GVL Starts session were bubbling over with excitement. Others were nervously fidgeting. A few sat in quiet contemplation. No matter what they were feeling, all the entrepreneurs in the program knew this was the start of a new chapter.
The program, powered by The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Furman, is designed to support the area’s next high-impact ventures and give founders the skills they need to launch and fund their businesses.
Their startups—or ideas for startups—are as diverse as the entrepreneurs themselves. They range in age from recent college grads to folks on their second or third careers. They are men and women of different races and backgrounds united by their dreams of doing something outside the box that’s theirs in industries like tech, healthcare, public service, and more.
There was a palpable energy shift as the founders grabbed some food and picked a table. There’s something about being in a room full of people willing to risk everything for a big idea. In their “real lives,” some of their family and friends think they’re crazy for giving up steady jobs to chase a dream. In this room, though, they get each other.
The connection was instant.
It’s hard not to get pumped about entrepreneurship around GVL Starts Program Director Bryan Davis. He’s helped launch ventures in real estate, health care, and boutique furniture and has worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs in the past few years. “Y’all energize me,” he said as he kicked off the class. “This is an elite group. Not everyone who applies for this program is going to get in.”
Davis is excited to see how this class develops. “What has been incredible to witness through the GVL Starts experience is what happens when you combine 25-30 strangers with wildly different backgrounds to work together on growing successful new ventures – it supercharges genuine growth of social, economic, and cultural capital which is foundational to vibrant communities,” Davis said. “I can’t wait to be a part of this with our next packed cohort of entrepreneurs.”
Davis and GVL Starts graduated the first class last fall. The program is much more to its students than the lessons they learn from classes two nights a week. It is the beginning of a network of big dreamers and the people who support them.
Five founders from the inaugural GVL Starts cohort came to the first night of the Spring 2022 session to share their experience and encouragement. Eric Cooperman, the founder of Bottle Titan and one of the winners of the program’s Demo Day pitch competition, was one of the grads who spoke to the class.
“I’m fully invested in growing the GVL Starts program,” Cooperman said. “Mentoring new students is my way of giving back and helping grow the network of support in our community. I want to be a part of building a fresh foundation for the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Greenville.”
Cooperman and his GVL Starts classmates have an easy rapport. They clearly bonded during their eight weeks in the program and since. They high-fived and fist-bumped and shared their latest ups and downs before speaking to the new class. They were encouraging, but they didn’t try to convince the class entrepreneurship was all free schedules and money stacking. They’ve all been through some dark times in this journey.
Chris Sexton, founder of Sexton’s Smoke N Grill, said you have to be a little crazy to become an entrepreneur, but when you get knocked down, you have to believe in yourself and what you’re trying to do. “Look for the light and keep walking,” he said.
Marni Peters, founder of LuMend, said she’s brought three products to the market that haven’t been successful. She said it was hard to pick up and try again a fourth time, but she did. Peters said when she gets really discouraged, she puts on the How I Built This podcast to hear stories of innovators and idealists—some of whom had to grind for decades before they experienced success as an entrepreneur.
Leaders of the GVL Starts program say a solid foundation can help avoid some of the pitfalls that cause 70% of new businesses to fail within the first five years. Small businesses are the key to a vibrant economy, which is why programs like it are getting a lot of support. GVL Starts is a partnership between The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Furman, the City of Greenville, Greenville Local Development Corporation (GLDC), Venture South, the South Carolina Department of Commerce, and South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA).
Greenville City Manager John McDonough says the city supports accelerators like GVL Starts that support the entrepreneurial ecosystem and provide a launching pad for new founders. “Greenville is a great place to live, work and raise a family,” McDonough said, “but it’s also a desirable destination for innovators and world-changers who recognize that our city has the mindset and resources to help them grow from startup to success.”
“The Hill Institute at Furman continues to champion economic vibrancy in Greenville and the Upstate for everyone, regardless of background, through innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives,” said Anthony Herrera, chief innovation officer and executive director of The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Furman. “We are proud to partner with many community partners, including the City of Grenville, to provide this signature experience, GVL Starts. We are seeing tremendous life-changing impact with the program’s participants, and we look forward to expanding The Hill Institute’s contribution to the community.”
GVL Starts will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays for eight weeks. In March, the entrepreneurs will have the chance to earn some money to give their startups a boost. The up-and-coming founders will pitch their ventures to a panel of judges who will decide who gets $5,000 and free desk space for one year in the heart of downtown, surrounded by other entrepreneurs, investors, and support organizations.
You can learn more about the Spring 2022 class of GVL Starts here.
Program leaders are already planning for the next class. The Fall 2022 GVL starts session will run from August 23 to October 13.
You can apply for the Fall 2022 session here.